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Notebook: In The Race

In a long quest to dig themselves out of an early hole, the Checkers hit an important milestone last weekend.

A shootout win over Norfolk on Sunday got the team to 19-19-1 for the season, or, in other words, back to .500. The last time they could say that was all the way back on Nov. 7, when a loss to Chicago, the second in a franchise-record, seven-game losing streak, dropped them to 5-5-1.

The fact that they’ve accomplished that feat – they were six games under .500 as recently as Dec. 7 – wasn’t lost on players and coaches.

“Once we had that stretch in November, we kind of sat back as a team and decided we needed to be back at .500 by the halfway mark of the season,” said center Brody Sutter.

As it just so happens, they crossed the halfway point in the middle of their three-in-three set this past weekend. They are now just three points out of a playoff spot with 39 games down and 37 to go.

“We accomplished that and now it’s go time,” said Sutter. “We’ve got to make sure we’re above .500 by quite a bit for the rest of the way to make the playoffs.”

“It’s the first little step, but .500 isn’t going to get us into the playoffs,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Now we’ve got to be putting wins in that column.”

The Checkers, winners of five of their last six games, conclude a five-game home stand with games against the Oklahoma City Barons this Thursday and Friday. They are 4-0-0 against their West Division rivals this season, with all four previous games taking place in Oklahoma City. If that historical success is any indication, they’ll have a decent chance of building even more momentum before heading out on a five-game road swing.

“In the last couple of months we’ve had a couple of games where we weren’t too thrilled, but I think we’re right where we need to be in terms of improving as a team,” said forward Aaron Palushaj, who has four goals in his last three games. “We have plenty of time to make up the ground we need to get into the playoffs and even make a deep run if we keep improving.”

More news and notes as the Checkers head into those match-ups:

Competition on Defense

When the Checkers started the season with seven healthy defenseman, Beau Schmitz was the clear seventh choice. He played just three of the team’s first 15 games, with those three games coming only when one of the top six suffered an injury.

Beau Schmitz
As it turns out, the injuries got more serious as time went on, with Michal Jordan, Rasmus Rissanen and Danny Biega all facing longer spells on the sidelines. With all seven blueliners now healthy for the first time since Dec. 7, Schmitz seems to have worked his way into more of a rotation, playing Saturday’s game against Texas while rookie Keegan Lowe sat for the first time as a professional.

Based on how each player played in those last two games, both Checkers wins, Daniels may not be any closer to ending that rotation. Schmitz was plus-3 in the 6-1 win over the Stars, with coaches and teammates alike crediting a Lowe fight when the team was down 2-0 against Norfolk the next day as a turning point that led to their comeback.

“(Schmitz) has been great,” said Daniels, who used the sophomore blueiner in 19 of 21 games between Nov. 19 and Jan. 11. “It starts in practice and he’s one of our hardest-working guys in practice. I thought he was real good against Texas Saturday because they come really hard on the forecheck and you’ve got to get back, get pucks and skate out of the zone.

“We wanted to take Keegan out of one game and put him back in Sunday – that was always the plan – and we’ll see where we can fit everyone in.”

It’s more difficult to see both getting in the lineup at the expense of someone else – Jordan, Rissanen, Matthew Corrente and Mark Flood are reliable veterans, while Biega has proven he can handle big minutes in his rookie year – but it’s an option Daniels can use if something should change.

“It could open up,” said Daniels of expanding the competition beyond Lowe vs. Schmitz. “We’ll see based on play. We talked to Keegan and Beau about how Michal sat out, Riss sat out some games and (Brett) Bellemore sat out some games in their first years. It’s just part of their development.”

The Golden Boys

It didn’t look like the Checkers’ four injured forwards – Nicolas Blanchard, Sean Dolan, Jared Staal and Brendan Woods – were going to skate on Tuesday morning. Then, just as the rest of the team was starting to trickle off the ice after the full team practice, they emerged from the locker room in yellow non-contact jerseys to much fanfare from their teammates.

Nicolas Blanchard
Dolan, Staal and Woods were at least able to do some conditioning work with Daniels, while Blanchard was mostly just out for a spin. Daniels did not have timetables on how long each player would be out, but it doesn’t seem as though any of them will be ready to play this week.

“I’m not even focused on them until they’re ready to go,” said Daniels. “Right now I’m just focused on the guys that are healthy.”

His ability to find capable replacements over the last several weeks has given Daniels that luxury. During the team’s November struggles, depth at forward was a major issue. Now, the injured four will make things very interesting in regards to lineup choices, with A.J. Jenks and Matthew Pistilli looking like they belong at the AHL level since rejoining the Checkers on tryout contracts. Philippe Cornet, acquired via an AHL trade, and Greg Nemisz, who joined via an NHL transaction, aren’t going anywhere.

“We have the depth and when these guys come back we’ll have tough decisions, but there could also be call-ups or injuries,” said Daniels. “You never know. You like to have the depth, and right now it’s good to have it.”

Olympic Rules

The NHL is set to take a two-week Olympic break from Feb. 9-24. However, it will be business as usual in the AHL during that time, leading to a specific set of rules governing roster moves.

Elias Lindholm
Those rules happen to be quite complicated. For those interested in the gritty details, the Syracuse Post-Standard has a helpful breakdown. Based on that article, here is a summary of how those rules may affect the Checkers:

Waiver rules are still in play, which only makes it realistic for players still on their entry-level deals to come to Charlotte. That's a group of only three players, one of whom, Justin Faulk, is actually going to the Olympics. Meanwhile, at this point in time, center Elias Lindholm and defenseman Ryan Murphy do appear to be eligible to play in the AHL during the Olympic break due to a combination of factors including days spent on the NHL roster this season and how often they have played in the NHL during the last few weeks.

In Murphy's case, the Hurricanes would essentially have to make that decision, in the form of an official assignment to Charlotte, by this Friday, Jan. 24, at 5 p.m. He would also have to stay with the Checkers until the beginning of the Olympic break, meaning seven NHL games missed. If he's not with Charlotte by the deadline, he could still play in the AHL during the two-week period before the break begins but not during the break itself.

Meanwhile, it seems that Lindholm, who has not been on the NHL roster for as many days as Murphy this season, could play the remainder of the Hurricanes' pre-Olympic schedule and still be eligible to play in the AHL during the break. The Hurricanes would just need to make that assignment before 5 p.m. on Feb. 9.

Is any of that likely to happen? Injuries to the rest of the NHL club will determine whether or not the Hurricanes can live without Murphy, who has sat out each of the Hurricanes' last two games as a healthy extra. Lindholm, meanwhile, has had a whirlwind first half that’s included a handful of injuries and his participation in the World Junior Championship in his native Sweden, meaning a break may not be the worst thing in the world for a 19-year-old rookie.

In either case, Daniels didn't seem to be aware of the Hurricanes' plans for either player.

"I'm really not sure," said Daniels. "I'd have to look into it, but we're not worried about that and have to focus on what we have here. Whether we get a guy or lose a guy, that's something we'll worry about down the road."

The Checkers are scheduled to play six games during the NHL's Olympic break, including two at Raleigh's PNC Arena on Feb. 14 and 16.